A Shirtgate newflash: wearing a terrible shirt doesn't make you a terrible person

Dr Matt Taylor gave a tearful apology after he was criticised for wearing a shirt covered in semi-naked women. That doesn't make the initial criticism wrong, but it does remind us that there is a difference between sexist acts and sexist people. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

There’s no denying that it was a terrible shirt. From a purely aesthetic perspective, I found it offensive - and that’s before we even get into the symbolic sexism people believed Dr Matt Taylor’s clothing choice demonstrated. I wonder who does the media training for the European Space Agency, because anyone vaguely cognisant of how the viral internet news cycle operates would immediately have earmarked a shirt covered in pictures of semi-naked women as a Very Bad Idea indeed.

Dr Taylor might now be wishing that he had taken a leaf out of Australian TV host Karl Stefanovic’s book. Stefanovic, it emerged this week, wore the same blue suit on air for a year and absolutely no one noticed. What freedom! How the women of the media world must envy him.

That Dr Taylor’s shirt provoked a debate on how women are unrepresented in science can only be a good thing. Whether intentional or unintentional, the clothes we wear send messages, and the message of Taylor’s shirt appeared to be signalling: “Ladies! Rolling around scantily clad, watching fully clothed men landing spaceships on comets, is ultimately what you’re good for.” But does Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt make him a sexist? I think not.

After decades and decades of judging women on their appearance, it appears that our image-dominated internet culture is increasingly scrutinising men’s clothing too. What we choose to wear is symbolic: we are told our clothes say something about us as individuals. Mind you, as anyone who has turned up to a party only to be greeted by three guests in almost identical outfits will know, the choice implicit in the transaction is largely an illusion. The high street presents us with rows and rows of identikit garments, and any deviation from the norm necessarily makes a statement.  Cast your mind back to your school days and you’ll remember that one of the main catalysts for bullying was clothing choices.  A long skirt might make you a frigid geek; a short one and you’re a slut. The same goes for the wrong pair of trackie bottoms; a hole in your jumper; a pair of jeans in an unfashionable cut. Earlier this year, an 11-year-old boy was bullied so badly over his choice of a My Little Pony lunch bag that his school, stupidly, asked him not to bring it in any more.

Bullying and mockery over clothing choices is something that any woman in the public eye will have experienced, from the “circle of shame” in women’s magazines to the Daily Mail’s “Downing Street Catwalk” featuring photographs of new female cabinet ministers alongside commentary about their clothing choices.

“It’s fine if it inspires young girls to go into politics,” said “thigh-flashing” Esther McVey at the time. Not likely. Try going on Twitter after a female guest has appeared on Newsnight or Question Time. And that level of sartorial scrutiny is not the preserve of the internet, trash mags and tabloids, either. The Guardian once put Theresa May’s disembodied brogues on its front page, and in September, a television journalist asked Yelena Serova, the first female cosmonaut in seventeen years, what she was planning to do about her hair while she was in space. In 2013, meanwhile, the comedian Sarah Millican found her BAFTA nomination overshadowed by her choice of dress, after she logged in to Twitter and saw that people were calling her fat and ugly. She cried in the car on the way home. The next day, the newspapers picked up where the tweeters left off. “I’m sorry. I thought I had been invited to such an illustrious event because I am good at my job," Millican responded in the Radio Times. "Putting clothes on is such a small part of my day."

Keyboard warriors sometimes forget the cumulative effect that receiving hundreds of negative messages can have on a person’s psyche. Seeing anyone - male or female, Sarah Millican or Dr Matt Taylor - in tears because a lot of people dislike something as simple as their outfit, will be disappointing to anyone who believes that human beings should be defined first and foremost by their actions. Taylor’s shirt may have become symbolic of endemic sexism in science, but we need to separate criticising the shirt's message from criticising him. Feminists should not be engaging in the kind of shallow, superficial scrutiny that women have been enduring for decades.  Look at my comments about the shirt at the beginning of this article. Were they really necessary?

Of course, the case of Taylor differs in that the motivation of his critics was political - raising awareness of sexism - while Millican was the victim of sexist abuse. But the root of the problem is the same. Clothing is seen to define the individual, and thus criticism of it feels personal even when it isn’t. Women are scrutinised far more than men, though the latter are by no means immune (see recent political storms regarding the wearing or not of feminist T-shirts for guidance). Millican rightly pointed out that on the red carpet, her husband was not asked once about his ASDA suit. Stefanovic wore the same suit every day in protest at the scrutiny faced by his female colleagues for their on-air clothing choices. In a similar act of defiance, Daniel Radcliffe wears the same outfit for five months of the year, to hamper paparazzi efforts to sell photographs of him every time he leaves the house, and is not the only guy to do so: Simon Cowell and Mark Zuckerberg do it to avoid having to waste time making decisions. Should female celebrities start doing the same? “I made a decision the following day that should I ever be invited to attend the Baftas again, I will wear the same dress,” Millican wrote, in the Radio Times, after her bad experienec.

We live in a society where a woman choosing to wear clothing to please herself, and not others, has become a political act. I suspect, as with Millican, putting clothes on constituted a very small part of Taylor’s day. As clothing retailers become all the more homogenous, the great lie that fashion provides us with a means of expressing ourselves is becoming much more difficult to buy into, and yet, people are still trotting it out as though it means something.

Earlier this year, I was asked to speak at Stoke Newington Literary Festival alongside my Vagenda co-editor Holly Baxter and the everyday sexism campaigner Laura Bates. During the Q&A session, an older, second-wave feminist stood up. Then, in a room packed with people, she drew attention to our long, feminine hair, some of which was, she “suspected”, coloured with hair dye. She criticised our skirts, and the fact that we were wearing make-up. All of these adornments, she reckoned, undermined our feminist credentials. It felt horrible and shaming. At the same time, I felt as though I had done something wrong. It felt personal. “This isn’t me”, I wanted to say. I imagine it’s what Dr Matt Taylor felt like saying, too. And Sarah Millican. And anyone else who has been made a spectacle of because of the fabric they use to keep their bodies warm. “I am more than this”, you want to shout. “SO MUCH MORE.”

My takeaway point from all this is that the clothes we wear say very little about us, and one hell of a lot more about the society around us. It’s unlikely that Taylor’s shirt defines his views on women, any more than the length of a skirt defines a woman’s sexual availability, or Esther McVey's dress defines her as a politician (and where was Boris Johnson to criticise people for noticing someone's clothing choice then?) But it does say a lot about the environment Taylor was working in (had there been a few women around, I’m fairly sure they would have had something to say). The Internet would do well to remember to fight the system and not the people in it. It’s either that, or wear the same thing every day.

Yes, it was a terrible shirt, but that doesn't say much about the person inside it.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.